The complete guide to not going to college

Risky business? Nah.
Risky business? Nah.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Kids grow up and go to college. Such is the norm. And yes—you could. Perhaps should. Think of the current economic climate, which all but requires people entering the workforce to arrive at job interviews brandishing their university transcript; think of the social benefits, the broadening of intellectual horizons, the wonder of leisurely exploring every subject under the sun; the (eventual) financial payoffs.

Or you could not.

A bachelor’s degree, which in the US takes four years but often longer to obtain, eats significantly away at both one’s time and resources. It is costly—increasingly more so with each passing year. Whether you’re a young adult contemplating the choice ahead or a parent preparing for life down the life, take a moment to consider a road less taken.

Quit the groupthink

Hollywood’s myriad coming-of-age films will tell you differently, but in truth, going to college isn’t even as commonplace as it seems. Per US Census Bureau data, around 58% of Americans over the age of 25 have “some college” under their belt, and only around 32% actually hold a bachelor’s degree. Those figures are at all-time highs—but still not very high at all.

Part of the normalization of college rests on an assumption that it is the natural progression of education after high school; many people seem to believe that without professors and lectures to help you on, learning just stops. That’s utterly untrue.

The biggest mistake you can make is believing that education is inherently tied to classrooms, rigid chairs, and standardized exams. After all, even graduates of the most elite colleges need to learn lifelong skills after they leave campus, such as balancing a budget, taking out mortgages, negotiating job offers—all of which are never taught by academics—and many of them stumble due to their own arrogance. Adopt a different attitude right now: Understand that the most important kinds of education have nothing to do with degrees. If you think you’ll benefit from hours of scholarly debate about niche topics, by all means go to college; but if you already know that you won’t, there are hundreds of high-paying jobs that don’t require you to waste your time.

Study for a job, not a degree

Already know what profession you like? Then, go seek it out directly.

In Germany, around 60% of young people train as apprentices—in fields all over, from banking to IT to manufacturing. In the US, that number is below 5%, and mainly only has to do with construction jobs. That’s because the idea of “dual training,” or splitting yourself between on-the-job time at a company and classroom time at a vocational school, is much more popular in Europe than it is in America.

But that doesn’t mean young Americans can’t apply the same idea. If you’re interested in welding, metal work, masonry, forestry, landscaping, or many other hands-on fields, it won’t be difficult to find apprenticeships or internships that can lead directly to a full-time job. For industries like art, journalism, or music, things will prove a little trickier; still, the majority of jobs in these industries only “prefer” a bachelor’s degree, and employers focus much more on your talents and experiences than your official credentials. (If you want to be a doctor, hopefully you know that’s a far different story.)

Go to a school that’s not a school

If the job you want absolutely mandates some sort of credential, remember that the pricey four-year US university is not the be-all, end-all.

Community-college degrees are affordable, flexible—they often allow students to complete portions of the semester online or at their own pace—but you don’t even have to invest in that if you don’t want to.

Consider innovative new education ventures such as the Minerva School, an accredited university that strips away most of the overhead of higher education (such as professor tenure, student dorms, or even a physical campus) and offers a pared-down, cost-friendly experience of learning in its purest form. Minerva’s acceptance rate is 1.9%, lower than that of Harvard, Yale, or Oxford, which should give a hint as to how coveted its experience is amongst both students and employers. Then there’s the Holberton School (paywall), a two-year tech program in San Francisco that turns complete novices into engineering experts.

“We have some students who have found jobs at NASA and Google,” Holberton’s co-founder Julien Barbier tells Quartz. “These are proof points of the result—of what you can achieve by going through this type of education.”

Companies, particularly those in Silicon Valley, are progressively looking away from transcripts and extracurriculars. Google, in particular, truly couldn’t care less about what school you attended; it only wants to know if you can a) solve problems, b) lead, and c) offer the company something different. IBM says that about 10-15% of its new hires don’t have a college degree. And in Google’s view, the experience of going to college can sometimes even detract from a candidate’s qualifications—serving as only an “extended adolescence.

Look into bootcamps and short programs

Coding bootcamps have exploded in popularity over the past few years, to the point where there’s even a $3,000 prep program to train people to apply for coding bootcamps.

If you’re interested in a computer science career, such programs are one of your best shots at getting there fast. With so much interest in the market, options abound for schools with different business models, teaching styles, and niche focuses. For maximum benefit, there are programs like 42, a coding school backed by a French billionaire that plunges students into a four-week “piscine” (literally, a pool) of immersive, intensive training, inviting them to spend nearly a whole month coding, day and night.

Just make sure to do your research—as not every bootcamp is capable of delivering what it promises, and some of them are falsely riding the wave of the success of others before them.

Take advantage of digital wonderland

The most obvious but underrated answer to expensive college educations is the internet. Online learning, while still scoffed at by many on the teaching end, is becoming much more popular amongst students as digital education platforms improve. Coursera, the world’s leading online learning platform, offers thousands of non-degree programs that teach essential skills.

One of them is “Learning How to Learn,” offered by the University of California-San Diego, which teaches the basics of picking up information: something that most colleges don’t ever bother going over.

“For a lot of people, face it, if you’re in class—somebody’s walking in and out, somebody else is leaning in front of you, you miss things and you can’t stop the instructor continuously to ask them to go back and repeat something. You’re wasting time,” Barb Oakley, the professor teaching the course, tells Quartz. Oakley adds that she struggled in college herself, often losing focus on instructors’ lecture materials after the first 10 minutes. Via her online course and others like it, students can rewind, absorb information at their own pace, and pick up skills they might otherwise never have even considered in a traditional college lecture setting.

Coursera is not alone: edX, Udacity, Khan Academy, UoPeople also provide free online courses, many of which are uploaded by professors at Harvard and other top schools. Putting aside the matter of the official diploma, you can receive a near-complete Ivy League education these days without ever setting foot on a campus—or paying a cent.

Try out the service industry

Not sure what you want to do yet? The service industry—food service, retail, customer service—is an easy in for those who don’t have a degree and are still pondering what they want to pursue, long-term. While it may not pay lucratively, service-industry jobs offer some of the most valuable career and life lessons that exist: You learn immensely transferrable skills, like time management, delegation, teamwork, marketing, efficiency, and patience: skills that you’ll take with you for the rest of your working life. It’s no coincidence that many successful businesspeople have worked at some point as a waiter or server at a restaurant.

Start your own company

Mark Zuckerberg, a decade after dropping out of Harvard to start Facebook, returned to his old sort-of-alma-mater this spring to give the university’s yearly graduation address. Amid some awkwardly smarmy jokes, Zuckerberg gave a bit of genuinely thoughtful advice:

Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for. Purpose is what creates true happiness.

An entrepreneurial culture thrives when it’s easy to try lots of new ideas. Facebook wasn’t the first thing I built. I also built games, chat systems, study tools and music players. I’m not alone. J.K. Rowling got rejected 12 times before publishing Harry Potter. Even Beyoncé had to make hundreds of songs to get “Halo.” The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail […] Right now our society is way over-indexed on rewarding success and we don’t do nearly enough to make it easy for everyone to take lots of shots.

Zuckerberg’s message there was nothing new: If you have an idea, and believe in it, take a risk, and work hard at it. But coming from him in particular, it’s a good reminder that the biggest and boldest success stories have nothing to do with what’s expected.